Deck the Halls 2017

This year what might have been a time of renewed grief following my father’s death last April (or plain old stress, or failed holiday expectations) has instead been an experience of abundance—of family fun and festive food and creative energy, yes, but also of time itself. On reflection, that’s probably exactly what the Holidays are about (and have been ever since people in caves figured out the winter solstice), but it’s the first time I’ve experienced such a winning combination of ease, verve and glory. Grief has a place in this wintry mélange, but it is a nostalgic and buoyant kind, conducive to ornament-making, ice skating and delighting in a well-placed shock of pretend snow.

All photos by the author, each a metonym for the people beyond the frame and each, I hope, a document of universal December wonder.

Autumn in Warsaw

The brisk air, the fading light, rust-hued leaves rustling and decaying—I come back to all this with revelry every year. Maybe because I was born in October, therefore autumn in Warsaw will forever capture the default setting for the world itself as I know it. Or maybe what has me so delighted is fall’s promise of a winterful of nights at home that seem to last all day. Either way, these November weekday morning shots in Mysia street manage to apprehend the season at it’s gold-flecked gray extreme. (The new Fuji helped me frame this, but it’s the tourist’s eye I recently honed in Portugal that got me to see it in the first place.)

Olá Portugal!

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As soon as I wrote I’ve had it with traveling in one long essay last summer, I found myself obsessively planning a proper vacation for myself and my son during his fall break from school. After considering Greece, Italy, Spain, Goa and the Canary Islands, I settled on a combination of sea and city in not-so-distant Portugal. Airline tickets were purchased, a car was reserved, accommodations were booked, a foldaway kite was procured. And on the last Friday in October our family of two plunged into our first ever foreign adventure. We spent six nights near the southern edge of the Alentejo coast, soaking up unseasonably perfect weather on a different beach every day and discovering nearby sites in Algarve. Next, we zipped back up to Lisbon by way of out-of-the-way Sintra, to explore tourism’s other side, which we agreed was interesting enough, but exhausting in comparison with empty beaches in low season and sleepy sunlit villages along the Atlantic. On the tenth day we went home, stunned at the way not much time had passed but how so much had managed to happen, and amazed at the way we now know exactly what it’s like to spend nine days in Portugal.

The photos I’ve chosen illustrate a composite story—about family time; about rediscovering the thrill of photography while figuring out a new camera; about a country less classically “southern” than expected, bracingly unostentatious and tinged with a kind of relaxed aloofness that recalls not Italy but Scandinavia. All were taken in ambient light with the Fujifilm X-T20 and the Fujinon 23mm f/1.4 lens. (Given the Fuji’s crop factor, this is functionally a 35-mm lens, which may well be the optimal leisure-travel combo of width and reach, with a range of depth options and practically no distortion.) The images shown are my favorites out of hundreds: specifically, out of the 550 that I snapped, of which 450 made it home, only to become 200 after import and the requisite vetting in Lightroom. (Note to my mother: you get to see all two hundred whenever you like!)

A Thing or Two About Turning Forty

Contrary to what I imagined, and definitely against most that I’ve been told, turning forty is not so monumental at all. Over the past three or four years, I’ve actually grown accustomed to being “almost forty” and “around forty,” so there’s even a sense of relief, as though I’ve finally been let in to somewhere I have to be, after waiting at the gate way too long.

What is shocking seems elusive and lodged in my memory: a sense I once had of the weight of such an age a whole generation ago, back when I was on the brink of adulthood. How strange that so many of the things I associated with full-on maturity have now zoomed past me, like a highway sign or some vista I didn’t stop for: discovering what to do in life, finding that someone, naming those children. What used to denote grown-up life now smacks of youth; adulthood keeps redefining itself, and for me it has remained something that’s just about to begin for a solid twenty years. It is only now that this sense of being on the brink of life is finally lifting. This is a welcome development—hence the relief, hence a sense of quiet pride and cause for calm celebration.

At forty I am grateful to have had my son, unexpectedly satisfied to be raising him on my own and relieved to know a lot more than I used to about the math of my emotions. I feel no shame with regard to my age, but quite a bit about what I’ve said and done in the past (especially during that awkward time between my ninth and thirty-third birthdays). Unlike the songs and motivational quotes that claim the opposite—I regret things I did way more than those I didn’t do, though luckily most of the sharp edges are gone and the guilt I carry is softened by nostalgia.

My dreams have shifted, too. Now what I want most for my birthday is not ecstatic gain but prudent absence: no illness, few worries about my loved ones, no legal troubles, no unwanted anything. If that seems unambitious or austere, keep in mind that the people I keep close, the work I do, the home I’ve made and the things I do for pleasure: these beget ecstasy enough. In fact, if I squint and recall what I might have wished upon my forty-year old self two decades ago, I can make out the contours of a life I wouldn’t choose over the one I am living.

And that, I concede, is a monumental conclusion to come to on one’s uneventful fortieth birthday.

The New Fuji: Early Days

When I attempted my first and only “official” camera review in 2014, I discovered I was more interested in the implications of one’s inexperience with a system than I was in any technical specifications. So if you’re in mood for the latter, I refer you to the excellent FujiVsFuji. As far as this review goes, most can be left unsaid. The pictures really do tell all—and even they are bound to evolve along with my mastery of the equipment. After all, I’m still getting used to the controls and testing my agility with the autofocus and its manual better half (my main challenge, either way, for which I blame both second-rate eyesight and iffy motor coordination). The question isn’t really if my bokeh is dazzling enough, or if the sharpness can julienne a diamond: it’s whether I’ve found a tool for capturing the scenes I need to capture to tell the stories I want to tell. So far, things look promising.

The switch I’m making is from both the maddeningly viewfinder-free 2010 Leica X1 and the superb Canon L 200mm f/2.8 (perversely mounted on the paltry 8MP Digital Rebel XT from 2005). My expectations are high, but the bar isn’t: I’m already enthralled, and I haven’t even played with all of the basic functions. My pulse-quickening kit includes the 14mm f/2.8, the 23mm f/1.4 and the 56mm f/1.2 Fujinon prime lenses (equivalents of the 21, 35 and 85 focal lengths in classic 35mm format), along with the X-T20 mirrorless body, which is almost too small, but in fact fits my hands perfectly and was worth every minute of the long wait for supply to catch up with demand. In time I may add the 90mm f/2 or the ultralight 27mm f/2.8 (or both), but for the moment I’m content with the options I’ve got, and delighted to find myself rediscovering the possibilities of photography. Because what are megapixels without the inspiration to match?

Or test shots with a new camera—what good are those if they don’t reveal something new about the person behind the lens?